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France's Cameroon History Probed

FILE: French president Emmanuel Macron is welcomed by Cameroon Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute upon his arrival at the Nsimalen international airport of Yaounde. Taken July 25, 2022.
FILE: French president Emmanuel Macron is welcomed by Cameroon Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute upon his arrival at the Nsimalen international airport of Yaounde. Taken July 25, 2022.

A joint Franco-Cameroonian commission has started work on delving into France's role in the Central African nation's colonial past and post-independence years, a chapter clouded by bloodshed and silence.

The Franco-Cameroonian Joint Commission was officially launched in the Cameroonian capital Yaounde on Friday.

Its scope is "the role of France in Cameroon in the fight against independence and opposition movements between 1945 and 1971."

It is jointly headed by French historian Karine Ramondy and Cameroonian singer-songwriter Blick Bassy.

The panel is part of French President Emmanuel Macron's push for a "new" relationship with Africa.

It follows inquiries ordered by Macron into France's role in the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda, and the colonial era and independence war in Algeria.

Announcing the initiative last July, Macron promised that France's archives on its colonial rule in Cameroon would be opened "in full."

Ramondy told AFP that Cameroon's decolonization of Cameroon and repression by France has "very little prominence, especially in France, where it is not taught in schools, unlike the war in Algeria."

She will spearhead a team of 15 historians from both countries, while Bassy will oversee collection of oral testimony in Cameroon.

The commission is due to submit its findings by the end 2024.

"One of the commission's challenges will be to make (this period of history) visible," Ramondy said.

In addition to access to French archives promised by Paris, the commission will look at France "in the broad sense: civilian, military, economic power, colonists", added Ramondy.

Bassy explained that his work would focus on "associations and people on the ground", welcoming the "unprecedented aspect of this heritage and cultural element."

However, the Commission has already come under fire from Professor Daniel Abwa, president of the Cameroonian History Society, who is critical of Bassy's appointment.

"You can't have a historian on one side and a singer on the other, it's really insulting," he told AFP.

Jacques Deboheur Koukam, head of the L'Harmattan publishing company in Yaounde which has printed many books on the colonial era, said the Commission lacked clear goals.

"What do we expect from this approach? Submit a lawsuit, provide reparations?" he asked.

Cameroonian historian Jean Koufan Menkene, a member of the commission, said his country "has been unable to come to terms with its own history."

Others question whether research can be carried out in a country ruled by an iron fist for nearly 40 years by President Paul Biya, and struggling with a deadly separatist conflict in two regions populated by Cameroon's English-speaking minority.

Cameroon was a German protectorate before being split between Britain and France after World War I.

The French-administered territory became independent on January 1, 1960. The British section followed in 1961, part of it merging that year with French Cameroon in a federation.

In 1972 the federal arrangement was dropped in favor of a single United Republic of Cameroon.

The French colonial army massacred armed members of the outlawed Union of the Peoples of Cameroon (UPC) party, including independence leader Ruben Um Nyob.

But the UPC continued its rebellion after independence, and many of its supporters died under the country's first post-colonial president, Ahmadou Ahidjo, an authoritarian who ruled from 1960-82.